Spoiler Alert: This post is of course about traveling solo and the lessons I have learned while traveling alone. I tell my story. However, this post is even more about the opportunities we gain when learning to simply be alone, whether we are across the world or in our backyard.
I don’t think it takes traveling across the globe to understand yourself on a deeper level. Although, it doesn’t hurt.
Spoiler Alert 2: Traveling solo is a romantic notion, and 100% worth it, however what I don’t talk about in this post are the countless hours of feeling lost, the high chances you get sick and have to navigate healthcare in a foreign place, the time(s) I woke up passed out on the Eurail with a bunch of international faces staring at me, the homesickness, the fear that hits when you look at your bank account, the countless hours of working 4 jobs while in school full time to allow for such adventures, etc. Traveling is much different than going on a vacation. But in my opinion, it’s better.
I have been privileged with catching the travel bug at a young age. We weren’t a huge travel family, or one that did yearly vacations. I grew up in the Bay Area (CA) and our travel range was pretty much a 3 hour radius, including the Bay, down to Santa Cruz or up towards Lake Tahoe. But when I was 9 years old my family took our first big family trip to Munich, Germany- where I would meet my cousins for the first time. I like to think that it was during this trip when some little bug, maybe in the high alps of Switzerland, or on some train in Austria, found me, tasted my blood and knew I’d be a sucker if I was bit.
And he was right.
Between the ages of 15-26, I would then return to Europe again and again, exploring 11 of it’s 44 countries.
I would also travel all around the west coast of the States, South Africa, New Zealand, and Mexico.
Europe & Germany
I didn’t have an extremely traditional college experience, although it was nothing wild. I left my nest in the Bay Area and attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. I studied Biology and German (although I would later switch to Psychology). I decided my freshman year that I would study abroad my sophomore year. My German professor helped me choose- I would be attending the University of Tubingen in Tubingen, Germany.
So I spent my Sophomore year in that small town. I was 19.
Other than one friendly face that I knew prior to departure, I didn’t know a soul. All but one of my classes were in German.. I lived with 8 other university students, 4 of which were German- the rest from all over the globe (Argentina, Italy, and Brazil). I took day and weekend trips all over Europe, usually just myself and a backpack. Sometimes accompanied by new friends.
This was one of the most exhilarating times of my life.
It was also one of my loneliest.
The First Lesson
Upon returning home, people would ask, “What was the best part?” and my answer evolved from the vaguely optimistic, “It was all so great!” to a very much more real, “I found out how capable I am at navigating life by myself. I found my strength in times of loneliness. I found my laughter in times of silence. I found a new language of communication, and I am not just talking about becoming conversationally fluent in German.”
One summer later, I was on the hunt to find an internship. By this time I had transferred to Santa Clara University. I was studying Psychology, now and on a path to get me into grad school to become an occupational therapist (again a direction I did not end up going into). I was looking at local internships and then my mind popped into “opportunity” mode. Sure, I would learn a lot at a local internship. But I knew I would learn even more if I could tie this experience in with a trip abroad. Hours of research allowed me to apply to multiple internships around the world, and the first one I heard back from was the one I was hoping for the most.
I was accepted to be an Intern at the Alpha School for Autistic Learnings in Cape Town, South Africa for 6 Weeks. I book ended that trip by stopping in Germany on the way there and back, while also sneaking in a road trip to Croatia.
My time in Cape Town was another test at navigating a foreign country, by myself, without knowing a soul. I lived in a small house with one roommate from Germany, two from France, and one from Zimbabwe. I met more international friends over my 6 weeks (including American- an obvious lesson learned- wherever you travel, they will be there).
As I prepared to head back to the States, I needed to reflect on my time and prepare for the question of, “What was the best part?”
The Second Lesson
My answer this time? It grew and expanded upon being confident in my ability to navigate through new places. “I found not only my passion for a new career path (teaching), I found out how much I love seeing other peoples stories unfold from day to day. I was reminded of how small I am, but not insignificant. We seem to break up life into the “small things” and the “big things”- but this trip made me realize everything and anything can be a “big” or “small” thing, for your mindset can truly become your life.”
Fast forward another year. I was graduating college. I decided I would take a year off before grad school to “do whatever the hell I wanted”. So I purchased a one way ticket to Auckland, New Zealand. I was going to be a nanny for a family for 8ish months.
I had told myself, “I have traveled across the world enough times- this should be easy.”
But this time it wasn’t.
One day before my departure I had my first full blown panic attack. Cue sobbing, shortness of breath, shaking, nauseous Mari. Long story short- I stayed in New Zealand for only 4 weeks. I spent time between two different families. But something was tugging me home and for something else. I tried to avoid it. I tried to “stick it out”. But something just didn’t seem to be clicking. I still wandered new streets, met new faces. I drove on the left side of the road and galloped horses along black sand beaches.
But I wasn’t happy. I was hurting, and being away from home and hurting wasn’t something I was ready to work through at the time.
An Ongoing Lesson
So I came home. This time, I was preparing for both questions of, “What was the best part?” and “Why did you come home early?” The best part was a mixture of what I had learned from my prior two solo abroad experiences. I had learned to navigate loneliness in a foreign land. I had relearned how much I adore exploring new places and marveling at how every crevice of the world has “big” and “small” things happening daily- if we choose to label them as such.
So, why did I come home early? This was probably one of the biggest “follow your gut” experiences I had had in my, at that time, 22 years on earth. There was a heaviness that sat in my stomach and chest for 4 weeks.
It wasn’t bad. But it was telling.
I followed my gut. Which led me back home, to where I would work at a restaurant and as a ski instructor, apply for grad school and get into the program I needed. This in turn led me to move to San Diego with my best friend and finally end doing long distance with my boyfriend.
That simple decision of following my gut to come home was one of the hardest decisions I had to make, but the relief that came from it was tremendous and ultimately ripple affected its way into me finding a home here in San Diego, working an incredibly fulfilling job, meeting new best friends, and allowing me to fall in love with traveling even more.
I now had a new half of California to explore, in addition to the states nearby that I had not yet touched, and our neighbor just south of the border.
It was following one gut decision that steered me to the life I live today.
And it has been every decision I have made in my life that has made me the person I am today.
I encourage you to learn how to be alone with yourself.
The Lesson That Keeps Giving
In my 26 years of life, I have lived nearly two years abroad, exploring by myself. I have explored 15 countries and countless cities. It’s not a lot to some. Many have gone away a lot longer, or explored double that.
But I learned to be by myself. I learned how to be alone.
I learned how to navigate foreign lands with foreign tongues.
I learned that the little things can be the big things and vice versa.
I learned change is the only constant.
I learned to trust my gut- something I had always heard about, but had yet to experience.
Again, some have traveled more, some have traveled less, but in choosing to travel solo I have learned lessons that sparked a lifelong interest of mine.
Be curious, be adventurous, be daring, be kind.
Traveling solo as a young woman gave me enough confidence in myself to look at the world to say, and mean, “I’ve got this, thanks.”
Which drives me to the question, what will I learn next time?
So, How Do I Do It?
Start small, spend a weekend at home- just with yourself- if possible. No visitors, no texting or calling with friends.
Then try planning a solo weekend getaway. Book a hotel or Airbnb by yourself. Go explore a new town or city. It doesn’t have to be far (although it can be!) Living near the ocean has me constantly craving the mountains or the desert, so you can find me seeking solo refuge there every now and then.
Then pull that bigger trigger.
Book a week, or more, in a new country. By yourself.
I guarantee you will learn more about who you are, and really, what better investment is there?
Have fun finding yourself- it’s always worth it.